Especially when it means five members missed Tuesday’s council meeting when the city is facing a budget shortfall. Instead of discussing that issue or other priorities, such as fighting homelessness, a light agenda was forced on the remaining council.
The situation demands a tightening of San Jose’s travel policy. Mayor Sam Liccardo, who did not make the trip, is recommending that taxpayers pay for only one council member’s expenses for such sister-city trips. Any other council member wanting to attend should use private funding. That makes sense.
Sister-city relationships are important for cities. But the heart of the program should be driven by volunteers from the arts community and members of the business community wanting to extend cultural and economic ties. City Hall should not be taking the lead.
And especially not when the city is considering asking voters in November to increase their taxes to fund important capital projects. Gallivanting around the world at city expense hardly builds voter trust.
Four council members — Lan Diep, Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas and Raul Peralez — made the three-day trip to Okayama at the public’s expense, as did an additional five staff members. Seriously? That’s nine international air fares, hotel rooms and meals for the trip. Fortunately, a fifth councilman, Johnny Khamis, paid his own way.
The visit commemorates the 60th anniversary of San Jose and Okayama’s sister-city relationship. The council members scheduled a visit to the prestigious Okayama University and the city’s historic castle, and planned a formal Japanese tea ceremony. They also met with the Okayama Chamber of Commerce and Industry and planned to discuss high-speed rail, among other topics.Liccardo acknowledges that he has traveled internationally to explore initiatives important to the city, including transit development, Smart City initiatives and environmental sustainability. But those trips were paid by non-profit organizations or agencies such as the Knight Foundation or the Sustainable Cities Network.
Indeed, there are sometimes good reasons for the city to fund officials’ travel. The current City Council policy states that “travel by city officers and employees is an appropriate activity and expenses when performed for a public purpose. Requests for travel shall be limited to events from which the city derives specific benefits through attendance of a city representative.”
For example, taxpayers can benefit from the mayor and council members traveling to lobby for city initiatives. Liccardo will go to Sacramento on Wednesday to join other California mayors in requesting that the Legislature give cities more money to fight homelessness. The expectation is that the public expense will come with a corresponding degree of potential public benefit.
And, yes, there can also be some international public benefit to sister-city relationships. But that must be balanced against prudent use of taxpayer funds. Sure, send one person to Okayama on San Jose’s credit card. But, next time, the rest need to pay their way.